Memorial Day is an American holiday honoring the men and women who lost their lives serving the United States military. It is observed on the last Monday of May and originated in the years following the US Civil War, before becoming an official federal holiday in 1971. Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting memorials and cemeteries of those who lost their lives in military service along with holding family gatherings and festivals that are often based around parades.
Memorial Day got its beginning after the Civil War ended in 1865 and had claimed so many lives, more live than any conflict in U.S. history, that it required the establishment of the nation's first national cemeteries. The Civil War ended in the spring which began a tradition in many American towns and cities where people would hold tributes at the cemeteries for the countless soldiers that lost their life in the line of duty. These tributes were performed by decorating their graves with flowers and reciting prayers to honor the graves of those who had fallen.
There is no record of the true origin of these tributes, and many agree that they were independently created by local communities. The earliest account of a Memorial Day style commemoration to the fallen soldiers of the war is a group of freed slaves in Charleston, SC less than a month after the war ended. However, in 1966 the federal government declared Waterloo, NY as the official birthplace of Memorial Day.
The Waterloo celebration was first held on May 5th, 1966 and was chosen as the birthplace as it hosted an annual, community-wide event, that was also recognized by the closing of all local businesses during the celebration. In 1968, General John A. Logan was the leader of an organization that aided northern civil war veterans and called for the creation of a national holiday to remember the fallen. Decoration Day was the original name chosen for the holiday to be celebrated for the first time on the 30th of May in 1968.
On the first Decoration Day, future president General James Garfield made a speech at the Arlington National Cemetery and approximately 5000 participants decorated the graves of the 20,000 civil war soldiers buried there. Many northern states held similar commemorative events and by 1890 every northern state had made Decoration Day an official state holiday. Southern states would also adopt commemorative holidays for the fallen veterans of the civil war but would celebrate on different days than the north.
Confederate Memorial Day was the holiday created in the South, and is still celebrated in several states today, also commemorating the fallen veterans of the civil war but with a heavy focus on the confederacy. Today this holiday has become highly controversial, and it is only celebrated in a select few states.
During World War 1, the United States found itself in a new war that resulted in a heavy casualty toll on the men and women serving the U.S. military. This war was the beginning of a trend to change Decoration Day into a holiday that commemorates all American military personnel who died in all wars. The holiday slowly became known as Memorial Day and continued to be observed on May 30th with even the southern states now adopting the holiday.
In 1968 the U.S. government passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, as an attempt to standardized Holidays and create a three-day weekend for federal employees to celebrate those events. In this act, Memorial Day was officially recognized as a national holiday and began being celebrated on the last Monday of May. This change went into effect in 1971 and created the Memorial Day holiday that we know of today.